It’s no secret, the formula for a successful summer series that viewers savour. It involves nostalgia, especially for the 1980s, young characters heading toward adulthood, a mystery and a sense of disrupting darkness and danger surrounding these characters. Stranger Things taught us the formula.
But is there even a formula at all? Can the vibe and appeal of Stranger Things be replicated? Well, there’s one serious attempt at doing that arriving now.
Paper Girls (streams on Amazon Prime Video from Friday) is delightful and comparisons with the Netflix series will abound in coverage of it, but it’s a different beast. (It’s based on a series of graphic novels written by Brian K. Vaughan, created long before the Netflix series, and initially promoted as “Stand By Me meets War of the Worlds.”) There is a ton of charm, the main characters are young – they start as 12-year-old girls – and, boy, do they have strange and sometimes unnervingly poignant adventures.
It’s 1988 and Erin (Riley Lai Nelet), the daughter of a Chinese-American widow, is setting out on her first early morning delivery of the local newspaper. We’re in the suburbs of Cleveland and the papers are filled with news of what president Ronald Reagan is saying about the Soviet Union. But it’s not the Cold War that preoccupies Erin. Her first morning is just hours after local Halloween shenanigans and some local teenage boys are trying to terrorize the girls delivering papers. So, Erin bonds with Mac (Sofia Rosinsky), the tough-as-nails veteran of the job, and with the acid-tongued Tiffany (Camryn Jones) and private-school/rich-girl KJ (Fina Strazza).
One thing leads to another, quickly, with little fuss and not much overly spectacular special effects, and the girls are in the future, in the middle of some war, perhaps, and certainly in danger. It is the leap into the future that makes the series very charming and unusually affecting. Kids, even very smart ones, are spooked by the future they find, and suspicious. What is even more powerful, dramatically, is encountering their adult selves and family members. Why, oh why, hasn’t the future they imagined for themselves come to be?
Adapted and written by Stephany Folsom, Paper Girls is vastly entertaining, an action series both warm and funny, and it has a depth to it. The 1980s period is not depicted in lush nostalgic tones. Rather, there’s an edge to it all, with the bigotry and sexism of the era on full display. Of course ‚there’s both emotional heft and weirdness in children meeting their adult selves. And there are some serious questions, too – do you want to go back to your childhood, and why? All eight episodes available now. Enjoy.
Also airing/streaming this weekend
Surface (streams on AppleTV+) has “intelligent thriller” written all over it. But it does make a mountain out of a molehill. It comes from Reese Witherspoon’s production company and is written by Veronica West. It’s about Sophie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a woman with a brain injury after a suicide attempt, now trying to make sense of her life, her past and current role. She’s a well-off physician living in comfort in San Francisco with a supportive husband, James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and yet she senses there’s something terribly wrong. In the first episode, her therapist tells her she made a very determined effort to kill herself. To which she replies, “If my life was so perfect, why did I try to end it?”
That is one of the few instances of solid plotting in what is a drawn-out mystery. Too drawn out. As Sophie tries to answer the question she put to the therapist, a man (Canadian Stephan James) keeps showing up and shadowing her to say enigmatic things such as, “Your husband, he’s not who you think he is, okay?” The series (three episodes now, the rest of eight arriving weekly) is an upmarket woman-in-jeopardy thriller that moves slowly, although some will find it an ideal summer-thriller watch.
Finally, note Fanatico (streams on Netflix), a new series from Spain. The official gist is this: “When a rap artist’s biggest fan tries to take over his idol’s persona, he finds out that being a superstar isn’t as easy as it looks.” But this is also a slightly bonkers drama both about fan obsession, and the cynicism of the music industry, but also a meditation on death and resurrection.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.